Saturday, April 15, 2017 - Updated: 7:18 PM
It was a miracle, Bishop David Zubik said. Despite what has happened over the past 500 years, a commemoration of the Reformation — a great moment of division among Christians — brought many of them together in a sign of repentance.
“We all bear responsibility for the divisions that exist within us, but once we open up to the power and the love of Jesus, then miracles can, in fact, happen,” he said.
The bishop joined Catholic and Lutheran leaders for a “Moleban to the Precious and Life-giving Cross, Lutherans and Catholics on the Way in Southwestern Pennsylvania — An Evening of Repentance,” April 4 at St. John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Cathedral in Munhall. A moleban is a prayer service of supplication or thanksgiving.
The evening was the first of three local observances of the Reformation. This year, Lutherans and Catholics worldwide are commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, under the theme of “From Conflict to Communion: Together in Hope.”
Joining Bishop Zubik at the observance was Metropolitan Archbishop William Skurla of the Byzantine Catholic Archeparchy of Pittsburgh; Bishop Kurt Kusserow of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; and Bishop Edward Malesic of the Diocese of Greensburg.
Bishop Malesic said that he was personally moved by the program that featured Byzantine songs, hymns and chants. “It was really about our desire as Catholics and Lutherans to come closer to God,” he said. “The closer we come to God, the more we know who we are.”
In his homily, Bishop Kusserow noted that it was the first step in a “significant” journey. Our various liturgies reflect repentance as a gift that we ask God to give us, he said, in order that our whole life can be shaped by its precious fruit. It is an act of turning our lives toward God with such honesty and humility that we recognize we are sinners, and that God is merciful.
“This is the holy and peaceful state in which we pray that we might live our whole lives,” he said. “It can be painful to be this honest, but to do so means life itself for us. For we only truly live by God’s grace.”
The Lutheran bishop pointed to the relationship between Jesus and Peter in referencing the differences among the faiths. Jesus reflected an agape — a total self-giving without reserve — love, while Peter reflected a filial love. It created distances between the two, he said.
Likewise, we find ourselves in the same place, Bishop Kusserow noted. We witness broken relationships that establish distances and great chasms that cannot be crossed. The more we visit wounds in an attempt to heal them, the greater the distances often become. The joy of life is compromised and diminished, he said.
“This evening, painful though it is, we take the time to acknowledge that our churches have stood at such a distance for 500 years,” Bishop Kusserow said. “We confess this here tonight as a failure of repentance, and we pray tonight for that gap to be closed. We want that wound to be healed. We want the grievances to be forgiven. We want the church to full unity, but still the distance remains.”
To be fair, Bishop Kusserow noted, the past 50 years have seen the churches actively try to close the gap, and some real progress has been made. But the differences are still manifest in many ways.
Can repentance close the gap? It can, he said, but added that it can only come when paired with the love of Jesus. Peter could not close the distance, Bishop Kusserow said. It was only Jesus’ agape love that closed the gap. Repentance is not a hasty promise that we will overcome our limitations and do better the next time. It is the attitude of turning our lives toward our Lord and God.
We cannot heal the divisions between us by ourselves, he added. Our wisdom, our strength, even our love is insufficient. So repentance means to stand together in the presence of our merciful God. It is to say to each other with humble honesty, “I love you.”
“The unity of the church is given by the Holy Spirit,” Bishop Kusserow said. “A gift most often given, I believe, when we are led to places we would rather not go and when we face situations we would rather not face, where we find that our wisdom and strength has failed — like tonight.”
It would be “lovely” if the churches could gather and say that every wound has been healed and every difference overcome, he said, but the reality is that we have gathered in an honest recognition that our best love has failed, and that we need the love of our Lord Jesus to be our hope and salvation.
“Our hope is built on Jesus’ perfect agape love after all, and nothing less,” he said.
Bishop Zubik noted the story of Jesus and Peter and the recognition that reconciliation can happen if forgiveness is given, as ways of bringing unity to the gathering.
“Marvelous things can happen if you leave it up to the Holy Spirit,” he said.
Bishop Malesic added that a gathering of this type would not have been possible 50 or 60 years ago because the churches had shunned each other in so many ways. He noted that Bishop Kusserow’s homily was appropriate in that, not only did it capture the essence of repentance as turning back to God, but it reflected that, as much as we try to love each other, our love will never approach God’s love for us.
“Tonight, coming together in this beautiful cathedral, it’s an acknowledgement that God does draw us closer together,” he said. “And God’s will is ultimately done.”
Following the service, small wooden crosses were given to those in attendance as a sign of the observance.
The second step in marking the Reformation — “An Evening of Witness and Thanksgiving” — is set for June 29 at St. Kilian Parish in Adams/Cranberry townships. The final event — “A Day of Commemoration of Hope” — is scheduled for Oct. 28 at St. Vincent Basilica in Latrobe. The daylong event will close with evening prayer.